1st Place Winner of Maine Romance Writers’ 2018 Strut Your Stuff Readers’ Choice for Historical Romance
Who knew a new friendship could be so dangerous?
Looking for peace and quiet, Margaret Taylor moves to a small Oxfordshire village to write about the Great War. She believes the idyllic countryside and picturesque hamlet would be the perfect contrast to the noise and distractions of Jazz-age London. Then one afternoon, she receives an unexpected invitation from a mysterious nobleman.
Christopher Tobias, forty-fifth Earl of Yawron, hasn’t left the grounds of his family’s estate since an accident that left him disfigured many years ago. Cloistered behind the protective walls that shield him from the outside world, he speaks to no one but his servants. Everything changes when he notices a young woman standing outside his gates staring curiously at his mansion. Intrigued, he takes a chance he never thought he would.
Margaret and Christopher must face decisions that will change their lives forever. As their relationship grows, Christopher’s past casts a dark shadow. Will Margaret’s future survive the demons of his past?
A Sneak Peek at Unexpected Danger
Damn it! Margaret Taylor gazed with disgust at the box-filled room. She had been in her house for over forty-eight hours, and it looked just as cluttered and unfinished as when she first arrived. Even her phonograph blaring the latest hit, Rhapsody in Blue, did not help lighten her mood. Swearing in frustration, she rubbed her hazel eyes and brushed dirty fingers through her short black hair.
Was she ever going to be done?
She had moved to this small village in Oxfordshire to be closer to her research materials at the University. Certain Oxford colleges were given documents from the Great War—that travesty from 1914 to 1918. This academic coup was quite a feat since the ten-year-old papers were considered state secrets not long ago. Though some old-school-tie favoritism was suspected in which colleges were granted the materials, many journalists, writers, and scholars swarmed to view these relics from the very recent past.
She wanted access to those documents. She had planned to view them herself. Now, she wondered if she would have time to visit those hallowed halls at all.
The doorbell rang. With a sigh, Margaret walked into the foyer and answered the summons. Two ladies stood smiling on the threshold. One was a fresh-faced, dark-haired woman of about eighteen, perhaps nine years younger than Margaret. The other, more sophisticated in appearance, was dark blond and older, perhaps in her mid-thirties. Taken aback by their sudden appearance, she simply stared at them.
“Good morning,” said the older woman. “Miss Taylor, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Margaret replied, startled the stranger knew her name.
“My name is Teresa Houseman, and this is Lara Raimond. We heard that you were moving into the area, and we thought we’d come by to welcome you to the village.”
“Thank you very much. I’d love to ask you in for tea, but I’m afraid…” She gestured to the chaos inside.
“We quite understand. Your house must feel as cluttered as a pawnbroker’s after a stock market crash. That’s why we’d like to take you out to lunch. Consider it sort of a ‘new neighbor’ celebration-cum-work-break.”
“Thank you. I could use a break. Let me get my purse and freshen up a bit.” Glancing around, she stepped inside and cleared two chairs of their boxes. “You’d better come in. You can sit here. I won’t be a moment.”
Fifteen minutes later, the three ladies were gathered around a table in a small tearoom. Like many of the buildings on the main street, the structure was only two floors high. It had a limestone façade and a dark wood interior. Margaret thought the architecture a big switch from London’s tall, imposing edifices of brick and stone.
She observed her companions over a cup of tea. They teased each other and laughed as only old friends could. If ever there were two people more different and yet more complimentary, she would be hard-pressed to find them.
Teresa Houseman may have been in her thirties, but she had the temperament of one much older and the well-aimed sarcasm of the landed aristocracy. Every once in a while, a flash of fire or levity lit her face and conversation, but she was otherwise very composed. Her honey-colored hair was styled so severely, Margaret wondered what crime it committed for punishment such as that.
Surprisingly, this aristocrat seemed perfectly open to the newcomer. She did not have the standoffish attitude new arrivals sometimes found in small villages. She also had a wicked sense of humor when she wished to and was not above indulging in verbal sparring. Her smile at Lara’s more animated behavior was often indulgent but rarely condescending.
Teresa had large gray-blue eyes and a wiry build. Her preferred mode of dress was the short-sleeve, dropped-waist frock and jacket of the modern woman at leisure. She smoked cigarettes casually from an amber holder. However, she was considerate enough to exhale the fumes away from those around her. Her face was thin and angular but quite pleasant when she smiled without irony.
Lara Raimond, on the other hand, was as effervescent as her companion was poised. She seemed completely without affectation. Talking with her but a few moments soon revealed that she was a romantic, though not a helpless one. Like Margaret, she was also a devotee of crime thrillers and mysteries.
Though Lara spoke freely and candidly, she lacked the pretension of confidentiality some put on their revelations. Yet she was never crude or common. Her ability to skirt what was sometimes a vague line spoke to her intelligence and probably the experience she had gained by being around Teresa.
Dark-haired, dark-eyed and vigorous, the younger woman had the robust and rosy-cheeked prettiness one expected in the countryside. Her fashion was that of long skirts, blouses, and vests in a more casual style than her friend. While not quite achieving a free-spirited persona, she managed to emanate a pixie-like quality that was both delightful and infectious.
It turned out that she was the schoolteacher’s daughter, so she had an education and, on some subjects, a strong sense of decorum and propriety. Teresa often teased her, making offhanded comments designed to shock. Yet they seemed to know each other’s limits and never went far beyond them, even in jest.
With the younger one providing frankness, simplicity, and a break from the pomposity and posturing of the elder’s social class, it was a happy arrangement. Judging by Lara’s clothes and conversation, Teresa had introduced her to a world of sophistication, style, and modern thought.
Even though Margaret was only the daughter of a country squire, Teresa, who had a better pedigree, seemed pleased to have a fellow member of nobility in her village. She especially appreciated that Margaret was from the City.
“It is wonderful to have someone here who has lived in London,” she admitted. “Until you came, Lara was the only other person here with whom I could converse about anything besides crops and livestock.”
The two friends certainly seemed well informed on all the gossip of the village. They told her which shopkeepers tended to overcharge, which men to beware of, and which members of the community could be trusted. But, amidst this flood of information, there was one thing they did not tell Margaret. In the end, she decided to ask.
“As I drove into the village yesterday, I saw a large Tudor-style house just beyond the outskirts. Who lives there?”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Lara answered. “That is the Tobias manor.”
“Who is that?”
Puffing a smoke cloud in the air, Teresa explained, “The Tobiases, who are the Earls of Yawron, have been here longer than any other noble family. Their roots even predate the Conqueror. A timely marriage to a Norman permitted the family to retain their holdings after Hastings fell, and they added to the original parcel of land through centuries of political and military maneuvering.”
“I see.” It was an old story. Ambition, greed, and Machiavellian maneuvering had created pockets of strong personal influence all across Britain. Why should this village be any different?
Teresa continued, “They owned this village until the turn of the century. Even though their legal responsibility has ended, their influence continues to be felt. Many repairs to the village are still funded, at least in part, by the Tobias family. They see it as their duty. Noblesse oblige and all that.”
“That’s remarkably generous of them.” Margaret frowned. “So why the awkward silence when I asked about the house? If there’s no real bad blood…”
Teresa gave her a strange look and stayed quiet. Lara picked up the story. “Christopher Tobias, that’s the present earl, hasn’t been seen in the village for over fifteen years. He doesn’t even ride through as his father sometimes did. His groceries are ordered by his butler and delivered to his door.”
“Why does he keep away?”
Lara raised a shoulder to her ear in a half-shrug. “They say an accident left him terribly disfigured, and he locked himself away to avoid looks of horrified disgust.”
“Oh. And no one has talked with him since then?”
Teresa shook her head. “Some friends and other locals tried for a while. After they were continually turned away, well… they just stopped. Almost no one has been there in ages.”
The woman paused to exhale smoke away from her companions. “The village physician, Doctor Rowan, is perhaps the one exception. He saved the current Lord Yawron’s life and helped him through his recovery. He used to go there quite frequently. I don’t think even he has been there since the elder lord’s last illness at the end of the War. All the earl’s servants come into town for help. Otherwise, the doors are sealed to all visitors. But they needn’t be. No one would go up there.”
“There are rumors that the isolation has turned his mind.” Lara gave the answer in a hushed excited tone.
Margaret snorted. “They say that about everyone who lives alone. People probably have said it about me. Hasn’t anyone gone to verify this rumor?”
“Oh no,” Lara said, shaking her head vehemently. “No one dares. When I was younger, just leaping the wall was a sign of bravery, and that’s nowhere close to the house. No one has ever dared to do more than that.”
“Oh,” Margaret glanced out the window. “It must be terribly lonely up there.”
Lara frowned as if considering that idea for the first time. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“The exile is self-imposed,” Teresa remarked brusquely.
“That seems a bit unkind.” Margaret reacted with a wince. “True, but still…”
“Let’s not talk anymore about it,” Teresa said with firm finality. “This was supposed to be a party, remember? So, Margaret, what do you think of your new house?”
As the days passed, Margaret got her house in order. It was a small bungalow but quite generous for a single person. The large, hedge-enclosed garden that surrounded it had a lovely, chaotic order to it. Most importantly, the house had plenty of room for her books and papers. All in all, it was a snug little home.
She continued to exchange visits with Lara and Teresa. Through them she learned more about the families in the district. The Tobiases still held a fascination for her, but she tried not to be too obvious in her prying.
Teresa seemed strangely reticent about the current earl and his family, despite the fact that she obviously knew them and their long history well. She even seemed irritated by Margaret’s natural interest.
Though she could not find out anything more about the peer, the history of his ancestors was gradually revealed to her. What she did not learn from her friends, she could easily find from others in the village, the local museum, or the library.
The family began in the normal way, with the bloody escapades of knights. A few royal sexual favors to the wives and daughters of these knights, and the financial and social advancement that often followed, allowed the family rank and fortune to rise. They gained land by the sword and between the sheets for many centuries. The last recognized bastard appeared during the reign of Charles II.
Though knights as a fighting force died out long ago, the Tobias men’s military service continued up to the present lord’s accident. Colonel Richard Tobias, his lordship’s father, had served in India, Africa, Asia, and in the Boer Wars. It was expected from the young heir’s birth that he would follow him into the service.
Many said that the disappointment of this ambition, together with the early death of her ladyship, broke the old man’s heart. The former earl died within a few years of his wife. The current Lord Yawron was an only child, and, of course, he had never married. With him the ancient line will die. Distant cousins in Scotland would take up the robes instead.
Margaret was fascinated by the story. She knew that her mother would have been shocked by several of the more salacious details. Yet this was the twentieth century, and Margaret had developed a more open-minded viewpoint.
One weekend, on her way to London to visit her mother, Margaret stopped her trusty Morris motor outside the walls of the Tobias estate. Walking to the gate, she gazed at the weathered-stone walls of the mansion set high on a hill. She paid special attention to the windows of the towers. There seemed to be no movement within. The house looked deserted. If anyone saw her from inside the house, she did not see them.
Arriving home from her trip, Margaret found an envelope pushed through her letter box. The message within was on a very high-quality pasteboard and written in an elaborate Edwardian script. It said:
Miss Margaret Taylor,
I request the honor of your company at dinner a fortnight from tomorrow, April the twentieth, at six o’clock.
Christopher Tobias, Forty-Fifth Earl of Yawron
“Well, I never,” Margaret swore under her breath. “His lordship ‘requests the honor’ of my company. I’ll have to give this proposition careful thought.”